How is the UK arts sector responding to the Black Lives Matter protests?

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are taking place across cities in the US as a response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. A video of the incident sparked outrage around the world, with Londoners organising mass BLM protests throughout this week to show solidarity. But until recently, most galleries and museums have remained silent.

On Monday, the director of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in south London, Arike Oke, called on the sector to stand against injustice by collectively taking anti-racism action. In an interview for the Museums Association journal, Oke explained that “BCA is the home of Black British history – our research collections are unique and so is our voice, but we don’t want to be alone in speaking out and calling for a change,

Those of you who are black, or have black colleagues, will know that the events of the past few weeks are taking an heavy toll mentally, physically, emotionally…on top of the weight of Covid-19 affecting black communities more heavily than others ... The weight is heavy because it’s the weight of history, of decades and longer of systemic racism and bias, of micro-aggressions, of not being believed, of our experience being minimised, of seeing black people die in police custody without enquiries being made. Of 40 years since the uprisings in Bristol, Birmingham, Brixton. Of 101 years since the 1919 ‘race riots’. Of 27 years since Stephen Lawrence’s murder.”  

The Museums Association followed Oke’s call to action with a statement that both acknowledged and stressed “the need for real change in how we address racism and diversity as a society and in our museums.” While some major UK museums have not yet released statements, like the Victoria and Albert in London, many are now voicing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier this week, the Natural History Museum in London announced a pledge to change on their Twitter account: “Many museum collections, including our own, are rooted in colonialism and racism. Today, we need to be accessible to all, as the hallmarks of this legacy linger on. It is essential we engage with these issues in order to move forward.#MuseumsAreNotNeutral”.

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery tweeted that “we passionately believe that #BlackLivesMatter. Museums have to be part of the change we want to see. We owe it to our Black employees, volunteers, community and artists. We have begun this journey and know there is still much to do.” The global music industry as well as numerous art institutions also pressed pause this week for the social media campaign #BlackOutTuesday, which was conceived by US music executives Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang in order to give space to BLM voices.

However, many have criticised the lack of meaningful action taken by the art world beyond these statements of support, demanding vigilance as Margaret Carrigan, journalist for The Art Newspaper comments “in the ways it remains complicit in racist structures”. Indeed, the UK’s most recent annual diversity survey found that the percentage of black and minority ethnic (Bame) staff at Major Partner Museums was 5%, compared to the 16% of Bame people in the general population.

As the gate keepers of culture, the art world has a responsibility to create inclusive environments that fully represent all aspects of society for visitors, employees, and artists. There are now increasing calls for its actions to take place outside of social media, whether financially, verbally or materially, in order to readdress systematic racial injustice.

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